RASKC’s Lean Ombudsman Debbi Linebarger

The folks at the Regional Animal Services (RASKC) shelter in Kent describe administrative specialist Debbi Linebarger as a Lean ombudsman. Debbi herself says she just knows how to listen to what someone is really frustrated about and work with them to identify root causes.

Debbi’s role is invaluable to the Lean problem-solving environment at RASKC. Gene Mueller manages RASKC, but is the first to say that traditional management is not designed to address front-line problems well. The manager is expected to be omniscient, when in reality he often has the least information about an issue.

And, as with every worker, there is a lot on the manager’s plate too. Glynis Frederiksen, RASKC’s operations manager, quips, “Traditionally, an employee comes to a manager with an idea—and three years later they might get a chance to look at it.”

Mueller and Frederiksen are using Lean as a vehicle—and relying on Debbi—to empower employees to make problems into opportunities to improve the work, harnessing frustration in service of productivity.

“King County sometimes seems like it is built  on bottlenecks. Unleashing the employees’ problem solving capabilities on a seemingly discrete process often impacts the entire shelter,” says Debbi, explaining the ripple effects she’s seen as small improvements lead to big outcomes.

Debbi Linebarger
Debbi Linebarger

At the same time, the culture of continuous improvement can sometimes lead to jarring or ineffective changes. Debbi is careful to call every change an “experiment.” “If we don’t like it or it doesn’t work, we can always go back to the old way,” she says, explaining the Plan-Do-Check-Adjust ethos in a nutshell.

To make for effective “experiments,” as she works with employees to identify and address problems, Debbi emphasizes not jumping to solutions, instead gathering baseline data and asking “the 5 Whys.” “We need to have a grasp of what the problems really are in order to find a places we can start to fix them.”

The Cat is the Customer

One example of a challenge that Debbi and the other employees at RASKC are working on is feline upper respiratory infections. Cat URIs are not good for the cats and costly to the facility, adding weeks to a cat’s stay in the shelter. At RASKC, a team consisting members from each of the work units that work with the cats—Shelter Animal Control Officers, Shelter Animal Control Techs, Vet Techs, and Vets—has been working to identify and implement procedures to reduce URIs.


The Customer (a picture of a cat)

The Customer

Lean starts with identifying the customer and the customer requirements. So Debbi starts with the cat: “The cat is the customer. What does the cat care about?” The cat-as-customer mindset helps the RASKC team focus on ways to reduce the number of cats with URIs or to treat them more quickly and effectively when they do get URIs.

Here are some of the issues they identified and countermeasures they are implementing:


  • Highest priority cats not getting immediate attention.


  • Developed clearer definitions of what makes a cat high priority;
  • Modified the vet check log so that high priority cats get seen first.


  • Cats with lingering sniffles after receiving a full treatment of anti-biotics recovering from URIs have been sent back by offsite volunteers who work at partnership stores such as Petco who think the cats are coming down with URIs.


  • Developing a simple visual system—a yellow dot on each cat’s information sheet—to signal to volunteers which cats have been treated.


The team is now tracking the efficacy of these countermeasures and working on implementing the next experiments.

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